The most unforgettable person I ever met was Alton Offwald, who used to be the editor of Travel Hazards magazine, which was published by the American Xenophobia Society for a few months in the 1980s before its members stopped associating with each other.
Offwald was the reluctant traveler par excellence. His fears were legion, and he used to declaim them fervently over home brew in the sanctum of his living room, which was filled with souvenir pillows and sundry relics and objects from all over the world.
I’ll never forget my first visit. I was with a friend, and we stopped by to return a book he had borrowed from Offwald. Our host offered us a glass of beer, then became increasingly congenial as we drank. He may have been a reluctant guest, but he was the warmest host imaginable, as long as you didn’t make him edgy by being too friendly.
“What are you doing for your vacation?” my friend asked him deadpan at one point, and Offwald looked at me and smiled.
“I think I’ll just stay home and peel the travel stickers off of some old luggage,” he said.
“Alton used to be a world traveler,” my friend told me, picking up the statue of a Buddha and fondling it casually. “I bought that Buddha in Nepal,” Offwald nodded. “I’ll never forget the time I spent there, but I’ll keep trying.”
The idea of a cosmopolitan recluse intrigued me. How had he become that way? I wondered, and as if he’d read my mind, he suddenly said, “I wasn’t always this way.”
I looked at him questioningly.
“I’ve been around the Horn, as they say,” he said. “No grass used to grow under my feet. I was the proverbial rolling stone. I was so broad from travel that I had to sidle through doorways. But then one day I fell out of a howdah in New Delhi and came to my senses.”
Offwald filled his glass with home brew, and went on, “That night I began to contemplate the manifold risks inherent in traveling and was dumbstruck at how I’d ignored them before. You know, that spectrum of mishaps and annoyances that ranges from Montezuma’s Revenge to the Case of the Wayward Luggage. In the middle of my reflections, an earthquake rocked my hotel, and it was like an exclamation mark to my revelation….”
Offwald paused, taking a drink. “I used to prefer German beer,” he said, “but that was before I ran out of gas in a Volkswagen in the middle of the Black Forest a few days after my New Delhi revelation.
I had to spend the night on an army cot in the basement of an inn where there were no rooms because of a convention of wurst designers from Munich, a loud, red-faced bunch who sang old folk songs off-key. And the next morning, I was nipped by an affenpinscher for stepping on some schwarzwald kirschtorte someone had put down for him to eat.”
“A bad night,” I agreed, “but nothing the scenic splendors of Bavaria couldn’t cure, surely?”
Offwald shook his head. “I just wanted to get out of there, so I hurried to Austria as fast as I could. My first breakfast there was spoiled by a roll that must have been baked during Metternich’s time, and that night I was badly sideswiped by a waltzing couple in a ballroom.”
“I was on my way to France, and by the time I got there, I was spending most of my time in my hotel room, sending out for room service and seeing all of the local sights by looking at postcards I’d bought in the lobby.
I quickly came to the conclusion then that travel and inconvenience are inseparable, but most people don’t notice because they’re distracted by the sights. I knew I was onto something, so I proceeded in scientific fashion. I made a list of every place I’d ever visited over the years to see if there was any place where something hadn’t gone wrong. There wasn’t.
It all started to surface like psychic flotsam, the afflictions I’d repressed. In London, one of those pokerfaced guards at Buckingham Palace had told me out of the side of his mouth that I looked like a twit; in Paris, a headwaiter who I’d asked for direction to the men’s room sent me through a back door into an alley; in San Francisco, I fell down Russian Hill in the fog; in Russia I lost my earmuffs; in Hawaii, I caught my lei in a revolving door and was almost strangled; in Rome, I was served a plate of pasta someone had spilled paper clips into; in New York, I was mugged by an off-duty bellboy at my hotel; in Los Angeles, I was swept into heavy traffic on Wilshire Boulevard during rush hour by a Santa Ana Wind; in Cannes, I was humiliated by an usher at the film festival for having my knees up on the seat in front of me; in Barcelona, I bought a wineskin that leaked; on the Serengeti Plain, I lost my traveler’s checks during a gazelle stampede; in Athens, I stubbed my toe on the Acropolis. And so on and on.”
It was a damning amount of evidence, I had to admit. I gave Offwald a sympathetic nod, which encouraged him to go on.
“Travel agents are sort of like drug pushers,” he said. “Get you hooked, then keep you going: ‘You liked Rome? Oh, that’s nothing — wait till you try a little Amsterdam. Here, take a look at these brochures!'”
Offwald narrowed his eyes. “Remember The Wizard of Oz? We show it once a year at the Xenophobe’s Party. Remember what Dorothy said at the end, about how it wasn’t necessary to look further than your own backyard for your heart’s desire? It’s my favorite movie, although I like Murder on the Orient Express and The Out-of-Towners a lot, too.”
Offwald studied me thoughtfully. “The grass is always greener in your own back yard, believe me,” he said. “And it’s greenest near the porch steps.”
“I guess you believe that home is where the heart is, too,” I said.
“Of course,” Offwald said. “You can’t go around calling every place you hang your hat home. . .especially if you haven’t learned the currency system well enough to avoid paying the equivalent of fifteen bucks for a pocket comb.”
“But isn’t that a one-sided attitude?” I objected. “What about the virtues of travel? Shouldn’t they be weighed in the balance? As you said, travel broadens. Surely it’s an educational experience, and helps promote understanding and tolerance.”
“All over-rated,” Offwald parried. “Moreover, I suspect that it’s unnatural to cross boundaries. The territorial imperative is there for a reason. Travel is really just a pseudo-scientific form of snooping. Wanderlust is a sort of peripatetic perversion.”
He stopped speaking, stood up, and crossed the room, opened a closet door, and took out a jacket, which he brought to me. Hideous beyond comprehension, it was of a black satiny material, and on its back glittered a cloth map of Korea in excruciatingly emphatic colors — lemon yellow, electric green, madder violet.
“Exhibit A,” Offwald said, and held the jacket up for us to regard. “I suppose you’ve seen these on veterans of far flung climes. This is just one of myriad byproducts of tourism. These have made their way into the most remote closets of my motherland.
I daresay there are most jackets like this on hangers in the closets of, say, Spokane, Washington, than there are people in that city who can date the Monroe Doctrine.”
Offwald returned the jacket to the closet. He was pacing now, agitated.
“Even the swallows have enough sense to return to Capistrano,” he said. “The hammock is my favorite form of travel. Maps are no more exotic to me than ingredient labels on canned food. And how about the bus depot photo booth quality of passport photographs? Junk pictures for the junket! What about customs agents with their mitt-like hand and zombified leers?”
He stopped, then returned to his chair, settling into it in a deflated and defensive posture.
“I don’t know,” I said skeptically. “Aren’t there dangers in isolationism? Isn’t the ostrich who keeps his head in the sand liable to end up ornamenting someone’s hat?”
“You can bask on your own beach, or play in your own sandbox without sticking your head in the sand,” Offwald said sagely.
“How do you feel about space exploration?” I ventured.
“Extraterrestrial vagabondage?” Offwald’s eyebrows lifted in indignation. “All of the nuisances and troubles of terrestrial travel carried to a cosmic conclusion! If you run the risk of being bullied by a headwaiter in a Parisian restaurant, can you imagine what might happen to you in a Venusian one? Or what indignities might be incurred during an Alpha Centaurian customs inspection?”
“I don’t know,” I said after a while. “It seems to me that no one country has a monopoly on the good things in life, that to be complete you have to take the best of each in a spirit of true eclecticism.”
“French cuisine is distinguished, but French beer is not,” he argued. “The Germans are as good at making beer as the French are at making wine, but the French can’t match them for composers. The British have a literary and military tradition but can’t function in the kitchen.
The Russians have produced great novelists but hardly any painters. The Italians have a cinematic heritage on a par with British poetry, but their politics is sheer comic opera.”
I could see by the light in his eyes that Offwald was stimulated by the challenge of my remarks and eager to set me straight, but suddenly my friend, who had an impending engagement elsewhere, began to fidget and glance at his watch. “We’d better be going,” he announced.
As he saw us to the door, Offwald expressed his pleasure at having met, then asked me to stop by another time and share another glass of home brew, an invitation I was to follow through on, being a fancier of idiosyncratic credos. I visited Offwald three of four more times, playing the genial advocatus diaboli to his zealous evangelist as he reiterated and embellished his basic conviction, to wit that the armchair traveler is a better and wiser man than one who actually wears out shoe leather.
At Christmas, just before I last saw him, we exchanged gifts, mine being an ashtray he’d taken as a souvenir from the Regent Hotel in Hong Kong, his a paperback copy of Robinson Crusoe I’d brought back from a trip to London. I keep the ashtray in my guest room for the use of out-of-town visitors. I lost touch with Offwald when he moved without leaving a forwarding address shortly after our last meeting.
Your guess is as good as mine, but wherever he went, I’ll bet he didn’t cross any borders to get there.